Baltimore native Wallis Simpson, who famously took on the title Duchess of Windsor when King Edward VIII abdicated the throne for her in 1936, has been a muse for many. The Oscar-winning The King’s Speech tells the story from the perspective of George VI, Edward’s brother, who became king when Edward abdicated. Anne Sebba’s new biography, That Woman, was released this month. And last year, Madonna wrote and directed a film about Simpson called W.E.
Though critics panned W.E. (which has not opened in Baltimore), Simpson is the perfect subject for Madonna. Like the pop singer, the Duchess was an endlessly controversial bucker of social norms (she’d been divorced twice by the time she married Edward), with a penchant for drama and high fashion—and a devoted following among gay men.
“The Duchess was the greatest fashion icon of the 20th century,” says Philip Baty from the confines of his elegant—one might even say rococo—Mount Vernon mansion. Baty himself has shiny gray hair, a ruddy, boyish complexion, and piercing eyes that match the blue gems in his ears. He is inclined to use superlatives when he talks about Simpson. After all, he has a small museum in his basement that is dedicated to her.
“It’s the greatest love story of the 20th century,” Baty says. “Imagine, at the time, he was not only the King of England, but of the whole Commonwealth. He was the Emperor of India. He was one of the most powerful men in the world and he gave it up to be with her.” He adds, however, that if Shakespeare had been around to write about it, “it would have been a comedy.”
Baty is cavalier about his Duchess museum. “Why darlin’, I’m just attracted to shiny objects,” he explains. He theorizes that while Simpson’s wit and charm clearly captivated King Edward, there’s more to the story. “She bossed him around and he loved it,” he says. “They say he had a little bitty thing and she knew how to work it.”
Baty occasionally performs in drag under the name Philippe Havincourt-Carre (he appears in the film Smalltimore, and claims he was once asked to star in a Japanese comedy). He occasionally wears a decommissioned Baltimore City Coroner’s badge from the 1920s, so he can say things like “You better liven this party up. Don’t make me go get my crime scene tape.” When reporting a stressful event, he says, “Fortunately, I already had an appointment for Botox.” He drives a flashy beige Rolls Royce and still laments selling the Corvette: “We called them the Duke and the Duchess.”
Baty was born in Greenville, S. C., where he began his art collection. He worked for an investment company, and moved to Baltimore in 1985. In 1989, he began dating Ron Peltzer—the two were married in Washington, D.C., in 2010—and they bought a dilapidated mansion just down the street from Simpson’s childhood home at 212 E. Biddle. Baty retired and, as the couple fixed up the house, he began to collect anything he could find about the Duchess.
Though they continue to work on the house, by 2005 major renovations were done and the result is stunning. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with art, ranging from masters such as Rembrandt, Renoir, and Miró to a thrift-store painting of a topless woman to which Peltzer affixed a brass museum label that reads: “Fallen Madonna with Big Boobies.” There is a room on the second floor dedicated to Baty’s extravagant collection of hats.
Realizing they had far too much space for two, Baty and Peltzer began to allow charity organizations, including HIV and animal rescue groups, to auction off banquet evenings at their home, which they call the Adele Corner house. They also host an annual ball in honor of the Duchess (on Sept. 16 of this year, the ball will feature a “Royal Segway Race”). There were no Wallis Simpson museums anywhere in the world, and, in late 2005, Baty decided that a small museum in the basement could add to the charms of the house.
The front pages of old newspapers line the walls of the basement room, telling the saga of the Duke and Duchess from the abdication up until her death in 1986. Three display cases below the papers display a variety of objects related to the royal couple. Though he doesn’t have any of Simpson’s original jewelry—one piece of which sold for more than $7 million—Baty has a number of replicas. “She popularized costume jewelry, after all,” he says. And even these replicas—a gold and diamond bracelet shaped like a cat, pearl necklaces, broaches, all strikingly modern pieces, a couple dozen in all—can go for hundreds of dollars.
A piece of paper with the Windsors’ autographs, old tabloids, gloves, furs, souvenir teacups, photographs, buttons, and other ephemera are displayed amid the jewelry. Another cabinet is bursting with books and 1,500 old newspaper clippings. Beside them lies the FBI file on the Duke and Duchess, who were long hounded by rumors of Nazi sympathies. “The Duke wasn’t very smart, and he was impressed by a housing project he saw in Germany in the 1930s. But they weren’t Nazis,” Baty says, echoing the argument of Hugo Vickers, the British Royal Historian who has written extensively about the Windsors.
The museum does not have hours and is not open to the general public outside of special events. It is the kind of collection that feels more like a shrine than a museum, saying as much about its owner as it does its subject. But Baty still isn’t content. Every year he hires an actress to play the Duchess at Mount Vernon’s Flower Mart. She is driven by a chauffeur in Baty’s Rolls Royce. Last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other dignitaries accompanied Baty and the “Duchess” in the Rolls.
Baty also worked with the Midtown Development Corporation to create the signs picturing the Duchess that hang from the utility poles on the 200 block of East Biddle Street, marking its historic significance. And he is currently raising money for filmmaker Steve Yeager to produce a drag “spoof of a documentary” called The Duchess of Windsor Ball: The Movie. “We want to use this comedic film to raise the $100,000 we need to create a public monument for the Duchess,” Baty says.
“It’s going to be a very alive piece,” Yeager says. “I’ll be interviewing people, hopefully in drag, as they arrive on the red carpet—encouraging them to be as outrageous as possible, with a team of documentary filmmakers shooting the rest of the party.”
The Schuler School of Fine Arts has come on board to design and create the monument. There are three completed models on a table in the Schuler School’s historic building on East Lafayette Street in Station North. One, a full-body sculpture, depicts the Duchess standing elegantly with a dog. It was created by Francesca Guerin, director of the school, with contributions from students. “The [proposed] location of the monument—in the tree box on the corner of Biddle Street by the museum—will make it hard to do a full-sized sculpture like this,” Guerin says. “We are going to have to be creative.”
“When we started, a lot of students didn’t know much about her,” says Nancy Van Meter, a third-year student who has taken a lead role in the monument project. When she told an art critic friend about the project, he asked: “Why would you make a monument to a shriveled old racist?”
“It is a challenge,” Van Meter says. “We’re between the people who adore her, and the rest of the world who despise her. There are such conflicting views when you talk about a memorial. But we want to do something beautiful. She changed history.”
“Fame or infamy—for her, they are almost the same,” Guerin says. Van Meter adds: “It is the dichotomy of the royal and the outcast.”
Baty agrees that it is Simpson’s contradictions that make her intriguing. “She was a controversial person living a fascinating life,” he says. “People will always be interested in that.”